THE headline above is, of course, a provocation. Misogyny is a plague, and a particularly virulent one. It should be chased out of polite society. But there is one, purely lexical reason to stick up for “misogyny”: the word’s meaning is changing, becoming a simple synonym for “sexism”. It is better kept distinct.
The original meaning is clear enough: “misogyny” comes from two Greek roots , misein, to hate, and gyne, woman. “Misanthropy” is a close cousin, meaning hatred of humankind. (As in many other languages, including English, anthropos in Greek means both a male and “humankind”, which is itself sexist. There is also misandry, hatred of males specifically, but this word is newer and rarer.)
Words are allowed to drift away from the literal meanings of their roots. But where possible, it’s best to keep distinct words for distinct concepts. Yet a search of the New York Times shows “misogyny” gradually gaining ground on “sexism”, which is probably due to lexical colonisation, rather than a rise in misogyny outpacing the rise in sexism over the same period. When Julia Gillard, at the time prime minister of Australia, recited a list of thick-headed statements by the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, an Australian dictionary-publisher soon added to its entry for “misogyny” the meaning of “entrenched prejudice against women”.
Since then, the definition has continued to slide. Take this recent article from Quartz:
The trending Twitter hashtag #ThingsFeministMenHaveSaidToMe collects the most shocking of both innocent gaffes and misogynist jibes.
It’s quite true that many of the supposedly feminist men quoted here have said some stupid things: “Sometimes I feel like women take sexism so personally, they can’t see the issues clearly.” “I have more of a problem with the way you confront misogyny than with misogyny.” “I think your heart is in the right place but you make men feel like patriarchy is all our fault.” “I think it’s really important that you make the movement more welcoming to men.” Nearly all of them are in the same clueless vein, wondering why women are so angry about sexism. But none of them are “misogynist”, in that word’s older sense.
That’s a shame, because the world has plenty of misogyny, and it deserves to be labelled as exactly that when it appears. Megyn Kelly, a Fox News presenter, grilled Donald Trump, who is running for the Republican nomination for president, about a series of nasty things he had said about women in the past. She began her question “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Mr Trump quipped “Only Rosie O’Donnell,” referring to an actress and comedian he has feuded with, and then said that political correctness was one of America’s biggest problems. In a later interview, he attacked Ms Kelly: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her…wherever.” This sparked a fresh media frenzy, causing Mr Trump’s campaign to say that “only a deviant” would think he was referring to Ms Kelly’s having her period. He later retweeted that she was a “bimbo”. Despite Mr Trump’s later claim—“I cherish women!”—when someone has such a long history of saying such loathesome things, we should apply “misogyny” without qualms.
What of “sexism”, then? The word is surprisingly new: the 1933 OED lists only an obsolete meaning: “a sequence of six cards”. But modern dictionaries list “discrimination based on gender, especially discrimination against women” and “the belief that one gender is superior” (American Heritage), “discrimination against, stereotyping of, patronising or otherwise offensive behaviour towards anyone (orig. women) on the grounds of sex” (Chambers). If “misogyny” is a cast of mind, “sexism” is the bigger and vaguer term: everything from discrimination to stereotypes to patronising to offensive behaviour.
Sexism, too, is alive and well. For example, to say that women naturally want nothing more than to have children and nurture them—that they have their own natural, separate sphere from men—is distressingly common. Erick Erickson, a Republican bigwig, disinvited Mr Trump from a fundraiser after the Megyn Kelly dust-up, saying he wouldn’t have Mr Trump in a room with his daughter. But Mr Erickson has also said that:
When you look at biology—look at the natural world—the roles of a male and a female in society and the other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role. We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships…and it’s tearing us apart.
The men (and women) who say this kind of thing would swear up and down that they love women. Their statements should be confronted.
But imputing hatred, which is what “misogynist” does, is an unnecessary step in a different direction. Misogyny isn’t merely a strong version of sexism. Some men go past stereotyping to contempt. Those calling out “misogyny” everywhere do so with the aim of helping women, but overuse of a word weakens it. If speakers keep misogyny to its original and more powerful meaning, it will pack a greater punch, hopefully to land all the harder on the misogynists of the world.